Democracy is in peril when politicians sacrifice truth on the altar of power.
In a 1983 Washington Post op-ed, U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote: “There is a center in American politics. It can govern. … First, get your facts straight. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Second, decide to live with the facts. Third, resolve to surmount them. Because, fourth, what is at stake is our capacity to govern.”
The Jan. 6 insurrection occurred because partisans on one side refused to accept that their candidate lost a fair election. They even refused to accept the results in at least two states (Georgia and Arizona) where Republican election officials bravely stood up under intense pressure to vouch for the election results in favor of Joe Biden.
Senior federal Judge Reggie Walton spoke bluntly when, on Oct. 22, he sentenced Lori Vinson and her husband, Thomas Vinson, for their roles in the Jan. 6 insurrection: “It does threaten the future of our democracy,” Walton said. “Democracies die … when the citizens rise up against their government and engage in the type of conduct that happened on Jan. 6.”
Judge Walton further commented that those defending their role in the insurrection are fueling threats against judges from people who falsely believe the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.
After a 22-day road trip through 13 different states across the United States in September, this political moderate wonders whether a center in American politics still exists. Vastly different narratives shape and exacerbate our political tribalism.
Talk radio has flourished since I moved from Iowa in 1989 — I first heard Rush Limbaugh when I returned to Dubuque on a visit from Germany in 1992.
Conservative talk radio thrives in the heartland today, and its messaging is not nuanced. “Radical Democrats” want to take patriotic Americans’ guns, defund police, put government in charge of everything and allow the murder of unborn babies. In the world of conservative talk radio, Democrats are not just mistaken, they are morally bankrupt.
Family and friends reveal political fault lines over trusted sources of information. One conservative family member acknowledged that he does not read, watch or listen to “mainstream media.” Fox News and radio talk show hosts serve as news sources and talking points for conservative family members and friends. In contrast, friends on the other side of the political spectrum expressed a much higher level of trust in “mainstream media” sources.
Conservatives openly express their contempt for “mainstream media” in social media posts and comments. Labels such as “MSM” or “Fake News” are used to attack the credibility of stories or facts reported by traditional journalistic sources when reported facts contradict a conservative narrative.
My college journalism professors stressed that the role of a good journalist is to pursue facts, check sources, put aside biases and find the truth. Art Cullen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, put it this way to his son: “We strive for accuracy. When you spot your mistake in the paper, it should make you want to retch. Really.”
The journalists whom I have known take very seriously the charge to pursue accuracy and truth.
Science vs. political agendas
The purpose of science is like that of journalism — to pursue knowledge and find answers to questions and truth. Unfortunately, politicians have taken aim at scientists, particularly in the areas of the environment and public health.
Climate change is real. Temperature data, melting permafrost and glaciers, and rising sea levels are overwhelming evidence, no matter how many snowballs U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., may bring into the rotunda of the Capitol during a freak Washington, D.C., snowstorm.
Medical scientists warned us how COVID-19 was transmitted, and they recommended reasonable measures to limit its spread. Republican messaging (anti-mask and vaccine skepticism) countered their advice. Tragically, too many people have gotten severely ill and died because politicians exploited resentment against medical experts and pushed their own narratives. Republican lawmakers and governors have asserted a distorted and inflated sense of personal liberty over responsibility to protect others.
As a former Republican, I have found this very disappointing.
After the 2020 election, Republican legislatures rushed to pass voting legislation in response to unsubstantiated claims of fraud. These state actions are premised on a lie — that substantial voter fraud resulted in the election of President Biden. At least two states, Texas and Arizona, would allow legislatures to overturn the will of the voters.
The federal Freedom to Vote Act is a response to state attempts to suppress voting.
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia thought that he could convince 10 reasonable Republican U.S. senators to allow debate on the floor of the U.S. Senate. He was mistaken. Only a single Republican senator — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — was even willing to allow debate on a related measure, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Republican governors and legislatures have defied the federal government over vaccine and mask mandates, even when these measures have proven to reduce infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Consequently, unvaccinated red-state residents and anti-mask radio show hosts have been disproportionately infected, hospitalized and have died during the latest wave caused by the delta variant.
During the 1972 presidential campaign, an Iowa farmer commented about politics: “It’s all about power.” Blocking routine appointments to the State Department and other agencies, creating a potential financial crisis through refusals to increase the debt ceiling, and placing blame on the current administration for the consequences of past policies and congressional and state obstruction reflect a will to acquire power over responsible governance and a commitment to democracy.
U.S. democracy was attacked Jan. 6. It continues to be threatened by lies. Tucker Carlson and Fox News continue to promote the discredited “false-flag” narrative, initially suggested by Republican politicians. U.S. House Republicans and members of the former Trump administration have gone to great lengths to prevent the House select committee investigating Jan. 6 from finding the facts. Attempts to block the investigation and withhold evidence reveal that they want to conceal the truth.
What’s at stake
Politicians have not always put party over country.
During the Watergate investigation in 1973, the late U.S. Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., famously asked, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” This inquiry eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Republican U.S. Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois are following Baker’s example by pursuing the facts of the insurrection as members of the Jan. 6 committee. Unfortunately, they are the exceptions within the Republican Party today. They have also been ostracized by their party leadership.
We must hold ourselves and politicians accountable for seeking and speaking the truth in finding solutions to the real problems facing our country. Democracy is in peril if we allow politicians to successfully exploit group identity through lies, misinformation and appeals to anger, grievance and hatred. Our democracy and capacity for self-government are at stake.
Gregory Hand, a Manheim Township resident, is a retired U.S. Army civilian attorney (1989 to 2017). He served as an Army judge advocate in Germany and as a local prosecutor in Dubuque, Iowa, from 1980 to 1989.